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The Leopard Man

****
1943

‘…those seeking cheap thrills should look for creature-features elsewhere; The Leopard Man is classy, striking entertainment from the top drawer…’

Over the last year I’ve covered most of the Val Lewton thrillers from the 1940’s; as well as nurturing top talent like directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, the master of shadows also enjoyed a fertile collaboration with the great Jacques Tourneur. And yet seeing The Leopard Man didn’t raise much enthusiasm from this critic; my memories of watching this as part of BBC 2’s seminal horror double features as a kid were not happy ones, and this musty venture seemed like a damp squib for a young thrill-seeker.

Firstly, there’s no Leopard Man in this film, no transformations, no half-man, half beast, it’s all a big red herring. The words Leopard Man do appear, written on the side of a van containing circus animals; perhaps following up on the box-office success of Lewton’s Cat People required a similar title, but it’s completely the wrong angle for this murder-mystery story. Based on a novel by Cornell Woolridge, published under the more accurate if more generic title of Black Alibi, this is one of the first serial killer stories. A catty feud between two nightclub singers Kiki (Margo) and Clo Clo (Jean Brooks) starts out as a ‘saucer of milk for table 5’ number but takes on deadly intent when a castanet solo causes a riot, during which a leopard escapes into a small new Mexico town. Murders occurs, but is the animal responsible? An expert suggest that such an animal would head for the hills rather than hang around where it’s liable to be captured. Or is the leopard so divorced from its natural habitat that it only knows urban ways? Either way, Kiki and her pal Jerry Dennis O’Keefe) have to solve the mystery as the bodies begin to pile up.

The unique Lewton formula is in full array here; expanded suspense sequences, creative use of shadows, unexpected musical breaks for local colour, mystical philosophical interludes. It’s a package the spans the years in its attractiveness; The Leopard Man still thrills as a story, and has more than a couple of dramatic set-pieces, notably when a girl goes missing under a bridge as she returns home with groceries, or a fortune telling that goes badly wrong.

I’d prefer to review this film under the title Blind Alibi; the notion of how the killer uses the creature as an alibi is the key one here; even if that’s probably too Scooby Doo for today’s audiences, there’s nothing arch or camp about it here. Those seeking cheap thrills should look for creature-features elsewhere; The Leopard Man is classy, striking entertainment from the top drawer. Maybe I was too young to appreciate this film when I was a kid. As Jerry concludes, eyeing a ball that spins in perpetual motion on the top of the town’s water-fountain.…

‘Kiki, Galbraith said something to me once, — something you ought to know. We were talking and he said that people were like that ball on the fountain at the hotel –they got pushed around by things bigger than themselves. That’s the way it was with us — and we were too small to see it that way…’

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  1. Good ole Val Lewton is underrated as a creative producer, and “Leopard Man” is underrated even among his movies. I think it should be up there with “Cat People” in terms of the contemporary psychological horror niche Lewton and RKO had going at the time. If I find one fault with your review – and I loathe to be a fact checker – it’s that the title of the Cornell Woolrich book on which this film is based is “Black Alibi,” not “Blind Alibi.” Regardless, I’d suggest you stick with the movie. If memory serves, the book is a bit overwrought, and the film adds some interesting and subtler layers. For the record, the door set piece is there, but I’ll admit I like Jacques Tourneur showing it to us more than Woolrich telling us about it.

    • I’ll reply in full tomorrow, but no offence caused via the correction, and fully agree that Black Alibi sounds better, wish the film was called that! Cheers!

    • That door set piece is great, and it’s hard to imagine it working any better on the page. But these little set-pieces are so much part of Lewton’s work; it’s been a real pleasure watching Ghost Ship, Bedlam and others, and seeing how that formula works. While some elements of these films are quite primative, there are, as you say, some subtle layers to decode. I really do wish this film was called Black Alibi, which is so much a more accurate title. I guess the success of Cat People led to a need for an animal/man title…thanks for this comment, and correction!

      • I think you’ve got it exactly RE the title. Lewton’s clashes with the studio heads were known around RKO. They weren’t always fans of his less-is-more art style, but they liked his less-is-less budgets. They typically gave him titles and told him to make movies out of them, so Leopard Man as a titular follow-up to Cat People makes perfect sense. Glad my Lewton fandom has finally come in handy. Haw.

    • I really wanted to use the book title, but thought it might be too confusing. This is more of a noir than a horror film, and better for it!

  2. Interesting point about early film portrayal of serial killer in 40s; The Lodger and Blue Beard were released the following year (guesstimate), as well as Hitchcock’s fav about creepy Uncle Charlie… Didn’t Scotland/Isle of Skye have it’s own Leopard (tattoo) man? A leopard matches well with serial killer personality, crafty, determined, depraved (?), more intelligent than lions, tigers, & jags.Impressive shadowy, noirish budget film that also portended upcoming trend in slasher films–the expendability of victims.and link between human and animal nature…

    • You should have written this review; last line makes several great points. Yes, this is ahead of it’s time, although Fritz Lang’s M kicks the cycle off, serial killers are irregular subjects in this era. But there’s something wonderfully sinister and alive about this film, slinky and dangerous, like a leopard. Yes, Scotland had a leopard man, long gone now so it’s safe to go out again!

  3. I saw this was on BBC iPlayer for a while and I had it on my list. But too late: it seems to have vanished. Still, at least the magnificent Cat People and also I Walked With A Zombie are still here.

    • I should do both of these, as probably the best known Lewton’s films. Pretty much all of his films stand up really well, and this one was a real surprise.

        • And there’s a couple of similar sequences to enjoy here. Yes, there are scenes which are stilted and of their time, but the magic moments are still magical today…

  4. With a title like that, I expect a Creature Feature. The plot sounds interesting for a murder mystery though, so the title really does the movie a disservice.

    If I’ve learned one thing in my many years as a lauded and publicly acclaimed movie critic, it is that managing the expectations of the audience is key to a films success or failure.

    • That’s a very wise point. It’s a great story, and my guess is that the negative reactions are mainly due to the title creating the wrong expectations.

    • I watched that scene a few times. It’s kinda cool that they dodn’t appreciate the dangers until it’s too late. Seems more cohesive than when I saw it as a kid, was very bored by this as a nipper.

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